Essay, Thinking, Hard and Soft
Comment 1

Tastes of Tomorrow

Image: 19th-century engraving of Goethe’s Faust and Homunculus

Excerpted from Thinking, Hard and Soft

Part 1: Hume and the Middleman

Raise your wine glass! Odorant molecules rise from the liquid and pass through your nasal passage before reaching a patch of neurons with hair-like extensions. A biochemical reaction sends an olfactory signal to the centre of emotion, your brain’s limbic system. That’s just the start.

Drink! Your sensory experience deepens. Onion-shaped structures called taste buds containing up to 100 taste receptor cells, again with neuronal properties, pass more information about the wine’s chemical qualities to your brain.

Waves of information hit your consciousness as your “brain” processes them. How much of this are you aware of? You struggle to come up with more than a few words: red fruit, stale cardboard, mushrooms on a forest floor and ladybug taint. All that information. All those neurons. And the best that you can do is stand by and take a few notes. It seems a bit disappointing.

David Hume was a great theorist of impressions and ideas. According to Hume, impressions are like pictures in a gallery and ideas are poorly sketched copies of the original. And yet, by training our senses we can make more sense of our impressions, and form better ideas of what they mean.

Where the organs are so fine as to allow nothing to escape them, and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition, this we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense.

(Hume, “Of the standard of taste”)

By Hume‘s definition, only a machine could ever have perfect “delicacy of taste”. The organic mind generates a gap between input and output, between the impression and the subsequent idea of it. This is the fundamental problem of wine tasting. The only way to resolve the problem would be to get rid of the middleman.

He was trying to get rid of the thinker, because he realized that that was a dead end. If you still have that middleman in there doing all the work, you haven’t made any progress. Hume’s idea was to put little valence bonds between the ideas, so that each one could think itself and then get the next one to think itself, and so forth — getting rid of the middleman.

(Daniel Dennett, “Intuition Pumps”)

One way of diminishing the influence of a middleman is to group middlemen together. This is the principle of the tasting panel: we trust joined-up expert opinion.

After several stabs at identifying the standard of taste, Hume identifies it as the consensus or “joint verdict” of “true critics”. But it does not follow that the same set of critics will serve as the standard for every work of art. Different critics are better or worse at evaluating different kinds of things, so the critical pronouncements of better critics invalidate the claims of unqualified critics.

(Ted Gracyk, “Hume’s Aesthetics”)

How can we communicate our own personal standards of taste without falling victim to the noisy gap that exists between impression and idea? While Hume was unable to eliminate the middleman in his philosophy, technology may allow us to do so before too long. Brain-scan technology is progressing: you can buy a simple device for around $100.

Imagine yourself wearing a sensitive headset while sipping your wine (or Sake, Whiskey, “artisan” coffee or ale, perhaps even dàhóng páo…). The information passes through your sensory system and hits your brain. But this time the information transfer continues. As your brain is stimulated it generates electromagnetic signals that are picked up by your headset. The headset passes the signal to your computer. An algorithm acts upon the signal and compares it to its records of previous tastings. Without ever putting your pen to paper, a tasting note is filed. The middleman is gone.

This may sound alarming: a middleman free, brainwave tasting app seems to lack “a delicacy of taste”. Still, it’s a natural next step from where we are now. Organic life and technology are increasingly integrated. Count the number of people on the street absorbed by a touch-screen. It takes an unexpected obstacle, a rude shove perhaps, to interrupt the symbiosis and bring out the steersman. Our clumsy attempts to harness the power of computation for the everyday convenience of our organic intelligence will seem quaint to future generations.

The basic idea of computation, as formulated by the mathematicians John von Neumann and Alan Turing, is in a class by itself as a breakthrough idea. It’s the only idea that begins to eliminate the middleman….  We know how to take a homunculus and break it down into smaller and smaller homunculi, eventually getting down to a homunculus that you can easily replace with a machine. We’ve opened up a huge space of designs — not just von Neumannesque, old-fashioned computer designs but the designs of artificial life, the massively parallel designs.

(Daniel Dennett, “Intuition Pumps”)

Part 2: Science Fiction

You’ve signed up to CloudBrain, a service that allows you to back up your brain’s information on a distributed computing system. Should anything happen to the physical copy of your brain, you will be able to live on as a transhuman: somewhere in a silicon valley, your brain will be booted onto a robot copy of yourself, you will be shipped out to your home and life will resume.

Today is your first day as a transhuman. You’ve invited all your friends (some transhuman, but most are still “organic”) to celebrate “re-entry”. You’ve saved a case of Riesling for this occasion.  As you uncork the bottles, the simulated heart-beat of your robot-body increases slightly as it used to and your synthetic mouth generates some anticipatory saliva. But as a whole, you feel a bit mechanical and estranged.

Your robot nose is better than your human version ever was. But you don’t get to notice this. The nose-brain robot interface adjusts your nose fidelity to match the quality of the nose you had yesterday, before you died in that car crash and your back-up was activated. You sniff and swirl. You cough: in your desperation, you’ve inhaled some of the wine. But no matter how hard you try, you cannot bring yourself to write a tasting note. It seems like there is no connection between the fudged input from your perfect nose and the digitised memories of the aromas and tastes of times passed.

The new you is digital. The information in your brain was converted to strings of 0’s and 1’s for back-up. The question is, what was it converted from? Was your real brain digital? We would say that your brain was digital if its representation of the world was encoded in 0’s and 1’s, or some other alphabet. Supposing that the brain was digital to start with, then we would not expect to lose structure or information through the back-up. Plugging our brains into our smartphones would be like plugging a USB drive into a supercomputer.

DNA is digital, coded in a four letter alphabet. But we don’t really know how our brain works. It might be more analogue than digital, more like a system of vinyl LP’s and gramophone needles. In an analogue brain, information would be completely encoded in physical structure: grooves in brain tissue, varying thickness, variation in synapse strength. Perhaps, though, our brain is a combination of analogue and digital, or perhaps it is something else entirely. In any case, by digitising a non-digital brain we’d lose some aspect of our original, organic self.

The two ways of processing information are analog and digital. An LP record gives us music in analog form, a CD gives us music in digital form. A slide-rule does multiplication and division in analog form, an electronic calculator or computer does them in digital form. We define analog-life as life that processes information in analog form, digital-life as life that processes information in digital form. To visualize digital-life, think of a transhuman inhabiting a computer. To visualize analog-life, think of a Black Cloud.

(Freeman Dyson, Is Life Analog or Digital?)

Back to the kitchen, where you are standing, wondering how to write the tasting note. You were used to writing spontaneous prose, comparing an elegant Riesling to a moonlit night, camping on freshly cut grass with the latent smell of diesel generators used to power the machinery of a nearby stone quarry in the air.

“High tartaric acid, fresh taste/aroma characteristics of an apple. A long finish, with some variation in intensity. A sugary impression evokes the taste of honey. 8.78/10.”  This is the last note you will write.


1. Daniel Dennett, “Intuition Pumps”, excerpt from The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, 1995)

2. Ted Gracyk,  “Hume’s Aesthetics”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

3. Freeman Dyson, Is Life Analog or Digital?,, Question for Edge discussion group from Freeman Dyson, see also: Video Lecture at UC

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: I. 23-29/01; Muddled Energy | workorart

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s